In late 2010, President Obama publicly announced his support for the (unlikely) idea that India should join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member. That went a long way toward reversing Obama’s initial approach to India, which was to give it the cold shoulder.
Now it seems the bill has come due for the administration’s verbal generosity. Hillary Clinton today made two sensible requests of India’s leadership–one strategic and one economic.
“This is not a time when any of us can afford to look inward at the expense of looking outward. This is a time to seize the opportunities of the 21st century and it is a time to lead,” Clinton said, adding that India, as Reuters put it, “should exercise political influence to match its fast-growing economic muscle.”
What this means is the U.S. wants India to play a diplomatic shadow game with China, seeking to counter China’s expanding influence across Asia. It’s not quite a new “Great Game,” but rather resembles more a Cold War-style proxy battle. In fact, China has already been playing this shadow game with the U.S. for years, seeking to fill economic and political vacuums created by American democracy promotion and nation building abroad. This is an obvious move by the U.S., but a welcome one nonetheless.
Clinton asked India to step up its investment in Afghanistan, play a more significant role in regional forums like the annual East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and increase its trade with Pakistan and other developing Central Asian countries. The U.S. also hopes to see the completion of a proposed natural gas pipeline in the region, of which India would be the destination.
Also on the energy issue, Clinton’s second request was that India water down strict consumer-protection rules that make nuclear plant suppliers liable in plant accidents. The rules are stricter than international norms, but were something of a political necessity because of the Indian public’s lingering memories of the 1984 Bhopal accident, in which an American chemical plant released toxins that killed thousands.
“Two reactor sites have now been set aside for American companies in the future,” an American official traveling with Clinton told Reuters. “It would be a very serious problem if India were to come out with regulations that were not in fact in compliance with (a global convention governing nuclear liability) and then left us out in the cold not being able to profit from all of the hard work that we’ve put into that.”
It is doubtful the regulations can be significantly altered, and meanwhile France and Russia are eagerly jumping into the Indian market with both feet while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. But Clinton’s trip seems to be hitting the right notes, and it is reassuring to witness some strategic thinking on the administration’s part.